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Memoirs of a picture show man

by Steve Maggs

Steve Maggs fell in love with the cinema at an early age. From the age of 9 he was permitted to travel into the city alone to see films. The first film he saw with a friend was Fists of Fury with Bruce Lee at the Forum Theatre in George Street, Sydney. At 16 he tried to get a job at Village as an usher but was told he was too young. In 1981, aged 18, he finally became an usher at Village. That was the start of a 30-year career in cinemas and the genesis of hundreds of hilarious, touching and moving stories.

Steve has watched the cinema business change over these years. When he started working, films were shown in large, single-screen picture palaces that were very ornate and beautiful – each with their own identity and décor, running from art-deco to Roman. In the late 1970s the multiplex arrived.

The evolution of the cinema business has been swift and often brutal. The transition from the seamless changeover of 35mm film reels mid-sentence, to the operation of unlocking movies on hard drives using a digital “key” has taken place without audiences even knowing – largely due to the hard work and diligence of people like Steve Maggs.

Thousands of Australians depend on the cinema industry for their livelihood. And cinema in turn delivers audiences a few hours of magic for the cost of a 10-minute cab ride across the CBD.

Battered by competition from television, the internet and now online film piracy, the survival of theatrical films is remarkable. Even today, it remains the most popular form of out-of-home entertainment.

Here are some remarkable stories from a passionate picture show man.

Village 4 Cinemas – Parramatta

When Village Theatres opened their four-cinema complex in Parramatta in December 1975, I dragged my mother along to the first public session of Three Days of The Condor. At the time I thought the theatre was incredibly small. After spending years in theatres seating up to 2,000 people it seemed strange sitting in a theatre seating only 396 and being so close to the screen. Even though the theatres were small, the complex itself was the largest suburban complex in Australia at the time. As time passed, I adapted to the smaller cinemas.

The funniest thing about Village patrons were the group of people affectionately known as “The Loons.” Parramatta has a number of psychiatric hospitals and patients were given day release on weekends. Every Saturday afternoon they would go to the movies.

Harold was regular. He had an imaginary friend and would walk through the foyer having a great conversation with him. In the cinema, he would continue his conversation even though there was a real person sitting beside him.

Beryl was a rather rough “loon” who would hang around and talk to us for hours at a time. She was banned because of her toilet habits. She was sitting in a theatre when she must have lost control of her bowels and soiled herself. She left the theatre leaving a trait of ‘nuggets’ although we did not discover this until later that night.

One classic event took place during a screening of First Blood. The reels were joined together in the wrong order, meaning that the film did not make any sense. What was even more amazing was that not one patron complained. I guess they thought it was just a bad film.

Checking ages for R – rated films was the usher’s responsibility and often caused heated arguments. My favourite was a boy of about 16 who wanted to see Halloween 2. I asked for proof of age. He did not have any. I then asked his date of birth and his reply would have made him about 48 years old. He could not understand why I did not allow him in.

Hayden High Street Cinemas, Penrith

The habit of going to the movies on Tuesday because it is cheap did not die easily. During one school holiday adults were admitted at children’s prices. On Monday the 10.30am session had few people in it. There were no queues and everyone had a good seat. On Tuesday the same session sold out with people turned away. The Wednesday session was again quiet. Everyone who saw the film paid the same price of $5.50. There was no need for the Tuesday rush.

Every evening the late-night usher was responsible for ensuring the sessions times board were changed for the following day. This was not a difficult task. However one usher obviously had difficulty reading the session times sheet. A lady arrived for a ticket to the 2.07pm session. The manager told her that the film was on at 11.45am. Upon investigation the manager found that the late-night usher had placed the finishing times, not the starting times, for all sessions on the board.

One day a teenage girl went into the cinema, watched the trailers and advertisements and after the film had been running for about twenty minutes came out saying, “Excuse me, how do you know when the movie has started?” I told her that usually the title of the film and actors appears on the screen. She thanked me and went back inside. I stress that this was a genuine question and not someone trying to be stupid.

Hayden Orpheum, Picture Palace, Cremorne

The Orpheum has a long history. It was built in 1935 by Angelo Virgona and seated 1,735 people on two levels. The Orpheum today is the old dress circle. The stalls now form the Hayden Room, arcade and shops. The building was sold to Mike Walsh’s Hayden Theatres in December, 1986 and fully restored and re-opened in 1987.

When I began work at The Orpheum in August 1993, I was amazed at the different ways the patrons behaved. A patron once complained that there was a strange lady washing her hair brushes in the sink of the Ladies. Investigating, the usherette found nothing at the sink. But one cubicle door was closed. Seeing hair brushes on the floor, she looked under the door to see an upside-down face staring at her. An old lady was doing a head-stand in the cubicle. She told the usherette she was doing her exercises and would not be long.

The reserved signs caused many problems. The patrons tended to “want to keep up with the Joneses.” If they saw someone with a reserved seat, they wanted it. One night I told a complainer that he could sit in a reserved seat in a back corner if he really wanted, but he was likely to be pooped on as pigeons were nesting in the roof. He chose not to sit there.

Shallow Grave was a black comedy about hiding a body. We always warned people who were not sure about the film that it was very “black” and might not be to their tastes. One couple came back to the box office after 45 minutes saying it was too violent. I reminded them of our warning but they had misunderstood it – they thought a black comedy was a comedy with black people in it.

The cinemas are all named and labelled but many people find it hard to get to the correct place. Whilst working in the box office a man came up to me and said, “I bought two tickets for Four Weddings and a Funeral and we saw Speed.” He told me he had never heard of Speed until he saw the poster on the way out. He thought it was a long trailer and that his film would be on after it.

Sometimes people can find the location of the theatre but not the actual entrance. A little old lady, looking for the Hayden, walked through the doors but did not tum left and walk along the passage to the cinema. Instead, she pulled back the decorative curtain that is against the wall, took a step forward and went face first into a cement wall.

Phone calls are very exciting. One never knows what silly thing you will be asked next. We are often asked for the name of a shop across the road from us, or if the hardware store is open.

The all-time classic phone call was documented in the staff book. Patron: “What’s that film?” Staff: “Which film are you after?” Patron: “The PG One.” The staff member wonders if it is Little Women or Dumb and Dumber. “Would that be Dumb and Dumber?” Patron: “Yes, of course that’s it. How do you spell the second word? Oh, and the first one too.”

Steve Maggs worked in the cinema industry for several decades, starting as an 18-year-old usher at Village Theatres in Parramatta in 1981. In 1995 he wrote the book Who Would Want to Work at the Pictures? Excerpts from the book were published in the journal Cinema Record.